I share James’s defense of the liberal arts in his post a couple weeks ago.  But I have mixed feelings about  the promises professors sometimes make on behalf of them.  One promise is that prospective employers “look at” your writing ability and ability to think critically.   Another promise is that a liberal arts degree will be “useful” in the business world.

My feelings are “mixed about” and not “completely opposed to” such promises.  My sense is that writing proficiency and critical thinking ability–along with work ethic, collegiality, and overall competence, however defined–helps one keep a job.  But getting the job in the first place depends more on internships, networking, or credential signalling (a proxy for liberal art’ish skills, but not the same thing) than on demonstrated writing or critical thinking ability. Perhaps a good liberal arts programs introduces its students to these things, but they’re separate from the actual study of liberal arts disciplines.  (Or mostly so….we could argue that everything is all related and part of a lifetime curriculum and that that represents the true spirit of the liberal arts.)

As James points out, the paths from degree to career for liberal arts majors tend to be “so contingent, so unique and unrepeatable, that they provide little clear guidance.” That isn’t an argument against the liberal arts.  In a sense, it can be an argument for the liberal arts inasmuch as it demonstrates the flexibility that comes with such a degree.  But it is an argument against giving prospective students the assurance that intellectual engagement at college or simply attaining a degree is the key to success.

How much do people actually make such promises?  Maybe not as much as I think or recall. Memory is always tricky, but my professors’ “promises” were at least sometimes qualified with a “or at least that’s what I’m told.”  They weren’t necessarily promises to begin with, just statements of why studying liberal arts might be instrumentally useful.

I also remember only half-believing those “promises.”  As an undergrad, I didn’t do all I could have or should have to develop my job skills (e.g., seeking internships), but I think I knew enough to know that a BA in history by itself didn’t really get one much of an entree into the work world.

And if I only half-believed those promises, I’m probably not the only one.  In my undergraduate years, my sense is that among my fellow students, there was a certain belief that the liberal arts were easy and what people took when someone couldn’t hack it in a “real” major like the hard sciences, or math, or engineering.  And let’s face it:  it’s probably usually easier for a non-specialist to get a B in an upper level history class than it is, say, for a non-specialist to get a B in an advanced science, math, or engineering class.  The prevalence of that belief suggests that it was hard to take uncritically the “promises” I mention above.

Therefore, however nefarious the promises might be in theory, they’re probably not as bad as those who might say their teachers lied to them.  At worst, they probably just reinforce what the student wants to believe.  Still, we shouldn’t make those promises without underscoring what James said in his post about paths to career.

Category: School

About the Author

4 Responses to Will think for food

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    or at least that’s what I’m told.

    The words of a person who probably never managed to leverage a career outside of academia.

  2. jhanley says:


    I agree. I should emphasize that I don’t tell them this will guarantee them anything. I tell them that these skills enhance their opportunities, all other things being equal. I also tell them to schmooze the boss, to network, and to be the person in the room who says “I can figure that out,” when everyone else is stumped, and then to put in the real effort it takes to figure that out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

If you are interested in subscribing to new post notifications,
please enter your email address on this page.